Apr 24, 2022
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Communication is an art that every great leader learns to master eventually. While some leaders have innate communication skills, others need to mind their use of language when they’re communicating with their teams to ensure clarity and avoid confusing or alienating team members and other internal stakeholders.
From poor word choice to the wrong tone of voice, many aspects of leader communication can be problematic without putting forethought into what they intend to say. Here, 14 members of Forbes Coaches Council share examples of problematic language and communication faux pas that all leaders need to be more mindful of.
1. Telling Rather Than Asking
Words are powerful. Yet, many of us are not mindful enough about our words when communicating with our team. For example, we might say, “You need to...” rather than, “Can you...?” or, “Would you be willing to...?” By asking, rather than directing, employees can experience a sense of control and agency at work, which can help them to feel safer and more valued, and therefore, to be more engaged. - Vered Kogan,Momentum Institute
2. Saying ‘That’s Obvious’
Two simple words that can be debilitating to the team and cause members to bring up their “shields” are “that’s obvious.” Such attacks are aimed at putting down the team or individual while promoting oneself from a place of intellectual arrogance. When a leader persists in judging and belittling ideas or comments, the sense of safety is gone, and the place becomes an echo chamber for the leader. - Thomas Lim, Singapore Public Service, SportSG
3. Asking ‘Why’ Questions
Leaders should be mindful of questions that begin with the word “why.” Although intended as exploratory questions, they’re often interpreted to contain a layer of judgment within them. This puts the other person into defense mode. Instead, leaders should explore with questions that begin with “when,” “where” or “how.” These questions are more open-ended and lead to broader, more productive discussion. - Stephanie Judd, Wolf & Heron
4. Saying ‘You’ Versus ‘We’
An example of problematic language represents intention and culture, such as often saying “you” versus “we.” If a leader is saying, “You need to…” often, for example, an employee could feel pressured and/or attacked. Saying, “We need to…” instead sets a vision for the team or project and opens up the opportunity to be more directive when needed. And it’s an inspiring approach that helps the employee feel part of something bigger. - Rosie Guagliardo, InnerBrilliance Coaching
5. Using ‘Killer’ Phrases “Good suggestion, colleague, but we already came up with that three years ago, and it didn’t work, as we all know!” Sometimes, a “killer” phrase such as this comes unexpectedly and brings a surprising aspect into the discussion. People get paralyzed, perplexed, almost speechless and cannot answer well at the moment—and so, the innovative topic or new idea is off the table. - Cristian Hofmann, Empowering Executives | SUPERGROUP LTD
6. Saying ‘Go Figure It Out’ I had a manager who, when asked a question, replied with, “Go figure it out” or, “Just manage it.” The leader thought he was empowering the team, but the issue with this approach is that it creates unnecessary delays, frustrations and missteps for the team members. Instead, leaders who can point you in the right direction (to people, resources or processes) prove to be more constructive and helpful. - Rittu Sinha, The Balanced Bandwagon
7. Putting ‘No’ Before ‘Yes’ Saying, “No, yeah…” should be avoided. One leader knew that agreement was important, and most of the time he did agree; however, he would put a “no” before his “yes,” which unintentionally deleted the impact of agreeing and collaborating. We get a dopamine hit when we hear “yes” and a cortisol (the stress hormone) hit when we hear “no.” This was creating disconnection and discouraging brainstorming, so we replaced “no, yeah…” with “yes, and…” - Natalie McVeigh, EisnerAmper
8. Saying ‘You People’ A leader can make a statement referring to a department or a group, but when the leader uses the phrase “you people,” a team member could consider that phrase as referring to their nationality or race. It is wise to avoid broad statements without clarifying who it is the leader is specifically referencing. - Ken Gosnell, CEO Experience
9. Establishing A ‘Need-To-Know Basis’ “That’s on a need-to-know basis.” This statement has been used by leaders of the midsized service firms I’ve coached. These leaders often don’t understand the link between transparency and trust. Then, they wonder why their people seem lost and uncertain about what needs to be done. Very few situations warrant information secrecy. If you want your people to take initiative, share freely. - Randy Shattuck, The Shattuck Group
10. Being Hyperbolic Leaders that use hyperbole to boost the impact of their statements when communicating with their teams actually decrease it. Not saying what they mean and hiding behind the exaggerated phrases they throw around actually minimizes the message they intend to send. This happens when leaders are fearful of how feedback or commentary will be received and seek to disguise it rather than being forthright. - Cathy Lanzalaco, Inspire Careers LLC
11. Belittling Others’ Knowledge “Do you know anything?” was something I often heard older males say to younger females. These men might have been speaking about a subject that was highly familiar to them but a new topic to their female colleagues. Speaking as if you are the status quo—as if your ideas, opinions and knowledge are superior to others—while belittling their knowledge or understanding does not help grow friendships; it grows division. - Able Wanamakok, Find Your Voice Asia
12. Dominating The Conversation I often cringe when leaders say, “Let’s have a conversation,” then proceed to dominate the meeting with their talk, not inviting discussion and actually having a monologue instead of facilitating dialogue. A conversation invites different perspectives into a discussion and gives people a chance to speak freely; one should leave the conversation a bit more enriched with a diversity of viewpoints. - Arthi Rabikrisson, Prerna Advisory
13. Using Condescending, Sexist Language Old, outdated terms I still hear being used by people (especially leaders) are “darling,” honey” and the like. These may sound like nice ways to address someone, but resist—used mostly by “leaders,” they sound condescending, sexist and demeaning. One leader said to me, “It was how my mother talked to me.” But there is really no good reason to use these awkward crutches today. - John M. O’Connor, Career Pro Inc.
14. Speaking Over People's Heads “Be impeccable with your word” is one of the agreements laid out by Don Miguel Ruiz in his best-selling book The Four Agreements. Leaders often fall prey to using complex jargon and big words to describe their ideas or communicate their vision. This can actually hinder communication. One of the most important things leaders can do is communicate complex topics in simple terms—it shows wit and thoughtfulness. - Josephine Kant, Google for Startups